Place of Interest – Singapore River

Singapore River

1Singapore River before the late 1970s where it was highly polluted
(Image taken from http://www.ura.gov.sg/skyline/skyline02/skyline02-04/text/changingfaces2.html)

2Singapore River after the clean up from the early 1980s-today
(Image taken from
 http://www.singapore-vacation-attractions.com/boat-quay-photos.html)

Singapore River by Lee Tzu Pheng
(http://poetryprosedrama.blogspot.sg/2010/10/singapore-river-by-lee-tzu-pheng.html)

The operation was massive;

designed to give new life

to the old lady.

We have cleaned out

her arteries, removed

detritus and silt,

created a by-pass

for the old blood.

Now you can hardly tell

her history.

We have become

so health-conscious

the heart

can sometimes be troublesome.

Singapore River by Koh Buck Song
(http://poetryprosedrama.blogspot.sg/2010/10/singapore-river-by-koh-buck-song.html)

there was a time

it could be said

the old subject

stretched its rule

in the empire

of the easel

now, refreshed,

the lady revels

in another reign,

clear, iridescent

fresh winds have carried

the old tang away

and in this revival

a new mirror

re-projects, rules

the new imagery

Singapore River is definitely a place relevant to Singapore’s literature as it has always been a valued location since the founding of the country. Dubbed as the city’s heart in Singapore, the Singapore River plays a very important role in sea routes contributing to the economic prosperity of the country. Singapore River flourished port city, where its trading ports were crowded with heavy human and sea traffic. However, with increased human flow, Singapore River gradually became a dumping ground to traders, street hawkers and passersby alike. Singapore River was massively polluted till the late 1970s.

In the mid 1970s to early 1980s, the Singapore government decided to take action to remove the litter, curbing the pollution issue and improve the standard of living of the citizens. The government implemented better sewage and drainage system cleaning up the highly polluted waters, refurbished riverbank walls, initiated to conserve surrounding architecture, provide a source of leisure (e.g. dining and water activities) and even as a tourist attraction.

The poems by both Lee and Koh highlights the changes made to the river and the effects of the clean up. Both poets personified the Singapore River as a female; an old lady in Lee’s Poem and a lady in Koh’s poem. The message brought across in both poems by enlarge are also parallel; the movement to clean up the river definitely has its benefits, however the transformed Singapore River would lose the uniqueness and perhaps its former lustre as well.

Mentioned previously, in Lee’s poem, she uses an “old lady” as a personification of the Singapore River, where “her” revamp was done so well and thoroughly that Lee pens “now you can hardly tell her history”. It was hard to imagine or picture the initial state of the river; the dumpsite, dirty and congested yet bustling with diverse activities. The overhaul of the river displayed positive effects, especially to improve Singapore’s standard of living and eliminate health problems associated with polluted waters (such as gastrointestinal diseases and malaria etc). Akin to a heart surgery, Lee describes the clean up as the unplugging of the river’s “arteries”, “creating a by-pass for the old blood”.

Similar in Koh’s poem, where he describes the Singapore River clean up, removing clutter and as “the fresh winds have carried the old tang away” appearing to be “clear and iridescent”. This illustration of the old Singapore River where the new waters are clean and glistening after the facelift given to the river, giving “her” a new image and new-found pride.

With a major reforms and change to the existing infrastructure, there will a wave of fresh perspective but irreversible changes will also be made. Lee mentions, “We have become so health-conscious the heart can sometimes be troublesome” possibly indicating her worry that the extremity of changes might pose a threat to the distinctive society and that could be almost entirely absent in Singapore today. Some features, in this case of the old Singapore River will become a matter of the past such as its dynamic liveliness and spirited area, turned into a sophisticated neighbourhood, prim and pristine. In Koh’s words, “a new mirror re-projects, rules the new imagery” indicates a redefined Singapore River, giving a whole new paradigm shift. Similarly mentioned in Singapore Places, Poems, Paintings, many poets and painters are indeed lamenting the loss of vibrancy, personal touch unique to the local culture.

Following are two paintings of artists illustrating the Singapore River too, at different points of time. Lim Tze Peng’s Bygone Bumboats completed in 1982 is likely to be representation of the Singapore River before the movement to stop pollution and the attempt to clean up the area. Hua Chai Yong’s Skyline completed in 1981 most probably represents the state of Singapore River after the revamp.

Lim Tze Peng, Bygone Bumboats (1982)

3
(Image taken from http://eservice.nlb.gov.sg/viewer/BookSG/138f37ff-4fd8-43a6-8215-baf0e79311d3) ) 
An artist illustration of bumboats, traditionally used to ship goods and supplies. The date of drawing could indicate Lim’s reminiscence of the old bumboats before Singapore River was revamped.

Hua Chai Yong. Skyline (1981)

4

(Image taken from http://eservice.nlb.gov.sg/viewer/BookSG/138f37ff-4fd8-43a6-8215-baf0e79311d3
Hua’s painting could exemplify Singapore after efforts of the clean up was made; less polluted rivers, more ordered waters and a generally more sophisticated Singapore.

In general, from abundance of material, be it in the form of poems or paintings, it could be seen that Singapore River is definitely a place of interest in the literary circle.

Other References:

http://www.singapore-river.com/history-singapore-river
http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_148_2005-02-02.html

Place of Interest – Bukit Timah

Bukit Timah, Singapore by Lee Tzu Pheng

This highway I know,

the only way into the city

where the muddy canal goes.

These are the sides of coarse grasses

where the schoolboys stumble in early morning

wet-staining their white shoes.

This is the way the city is fed

men, machines,

flushed out of their short dreams

and suburban holes

to churn down this waiting gullet.

They flow endlessly this way

from dawn, before sky opens,

to the narrow glare of noon

and evening’s slow closing.

Under the steaming morning,

ambition flashes by in a new car:

the reluctant salesman faced

with another day of selling his pride

hunches over the lambretta, swerving

from old farmer with fruit-heavy basket.

The women back from market

remark that this monsoon will be bad

for the price of vegetables:

their loitering children, too small for school,

learn the value of five cents, ten cents,

from hunger and these market days.

All morning the tired buses whine

their monotonous route, drag

from stop to stop,

disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks,

long-suffering civil servants,

pretty office girls, to feed

the megalopolitan appetite.

This highway I know,

the only way out of the city:

the same highway under the moon,

the same people under the sea-green

of lamps newly turned on at evening.

One day there will be tall buildings

here, where the green trees reach

for the narrow canal.

The holes where the restless sleepers are

will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories.

Life will be orderly, comfortable,

exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs.

I wonder what that old farmer would say

if he lived to come this way

Bukit Timah

Located in the central region of Singapore, Bukit Timah district is named after Singapore’s tallest hill which stands at an altitude of 163.63 metres (537 ft.) and is the highest natural point in Singapore. Spanning 25km long, Bukit Timah is the main road linking Singapore to Johor, through the Bukit Timah railway station. Furthermore, the old Ford Factory in Bukit Timah, is where the British surrendered Singapore over to the Japanese, who used the factory as their headquarters during the war. As such, Bukit Timah had witnessed much of the historical war moments.

Bukit Timah was also a granite quarry in the 19th century, surrounded by vast stretches of plantation and rainforest. However after the Japanese Occupation, existing farms and plantations in Bukit Timah evolved into industrialised buildings and high-rise flats. In the 1960s and 1970s, Bukit Timah was a major industrial center. Today, Bukit Timah is better known to be the residency for the wealthy, occupied by luxury estates, making Bukit Timah Singapore’s premier residential district.

 bukittimah railway bukit timah landed property

(From left, Bukit Timah Railway Station in 1900s and Bukit Timah landed property in 2000s)

The poem touches on a theme of conservation along with Singapore’s drive towards urbanization.  Where villages are transforming into industrialized buildings, the poet expresses her personal view of Singapore’s steer towards modernization resulting in the inevitable erasure of past memories as seen from “This is the way the city is fed, men, machines, flushed out of their short dreams”.

In a passive and gentle conversational tone, the poet goes on to describe the frugal lives of Bukit Timah residents before the changes of industrialization, from “their loitering children, too small for school, learn the value of five cents, ten cents, from hunger and these market days”, where the mention of “alcohol” and “nightclubs” in the poem corresponds to the portrayal of the poet’s mental image of the future Singapore.

Overview_BukitTimah

The poet is apprehensive of Singapore’s development into a city, from “disgorge schoolchildren, pale-faced clerks, long-suffering civil servants, pretty office girls, to feed the megapolitan appetite” where she referred the people to be the victims of urbanization. At the same time, she acknowledges the benefits of industrialization, from “The holes where the restless sleepers are, will be neat, boxed up in ten-stories”, shows that people will be better off in the high rise flats. On the other hand, she puts up resistance to the idea as seen from “Life will be orderly, comfortable, exciting, occasionally, at the new nightclubs”, the mention of nightclubs here indicates a sense of unfamiliarity to the poet, as well as uncongenial to the poetic self.  Also, from “I wonder what that old farmer would say / if he lived to come this way” seems to show that she is hesitant and  uncertain about what the future brings, as she verbalized the thoughts of a farmer aloud, of their livelihood being threatened when urbanization transforms the farms into buildings.

References

Chee), Tham (Seong. “Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia.” Essays on Literature and Society in Southeast Asia. http://books.google.com.sg/books?id=h6SOvP6FLskC&pg=PA174&lpg=PA174&dq=reviews+on+lee+tzu+pheng+bukit+timah+poem&source=bl&ots=6rybnDPhGT&sig=4RzYYajud44PFvBGWJj0vI4oAH8&hl=en&sa=X&ei=vgtXUaieFsn-rAe44oGQCQ&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false (accessed March 23, 2013).